Snow in Kyushu...

Trip Start Feb 26, 2007
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Trip End Jun 16, 2007


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Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Without meaning to blow my own trumpet, the foresight that I showed before going to Mount Aso meant that my short stay turned out to be a memorable one...but it could have been a lot different!

I was booked into the youth hostel for two nights, with Wednesday all set to be my full day for exploring the volcanoes. However, the weather forecast predicted prolonged and heavy rain for then, so I decided to make a very early start on Tuesday in the hope of getting to Aso in the morning, and fingers crossed, having a nice day. It`s fair to say that I couldn`t have wrote the script any better if I`d tried...

My alarm went off at 5.50am in Kumamoto, and I quickly got organised and boarded a tram to the train station at 6.30am, surprisingly accompanied by lots of schoolchildren and salarymen. I was on autopilot due to a restless night (always happens when I know that I need to get up early), but I managed to get the train at 7.22am without any problems...

I arrived in the small town of Aso an hour and twenty minutes later, and got a taxi to the hostel...quite possibly the earliest I had ever arrived at my accommodation! Not surprisingly, I couldn`t check in at that stage, but the friendly woman at reception pointed me in the direction of the bus stop as a bus was due at 9am to go to the main crater...so off I went!

I met Sven, a Swiss guy, there and we ended up spending the entire day together, making it a lot more enjoyable. We looked at various maps and planned our route as the bus wound its way up to the main caldera, and even though it was a bit cloudy, I sensed that we were going to be lucky with the weather...

The bus stopped en route so that we could take a photograph of Konne-zuka, an extinct volcano with a perfectly shaped cone, before continuing on to the visitor centre. We opted to walk up to the active crater of Nake-dake rather than pay for the cable car, and it only took about twenty minutes until we arrived at the fearsome sight...

We were lucky because the summit is often declared off limits due to the toxic gas emissions bellowing out of the crater, but it`s all dependant on the wind direction and on this occasion, we were fine. There were signs warning of the dangers though, and Sven was more at risk being an asthma sufferer, but that wasn`t going to stop him...

Anyway it turned out to be an awesome sight, bringing back memories of White Island in New Zealand. There was a lot more steam here though, and down below you could see the brilliant turquoise colour of the crater lake - it felt incredible being so close to an active volcano, one that had killed a fair amount of people in the last fifty years alone!

Soon afterwards, we embarked on a full day hike that took us away from the tourists, and deep into the lunar landscape that had shades of the much hyped Tongariro Crossing about it. If I`d have been on my own, I might not have made the steep ascent up to Taka-dake (1592m), but using the old addage of "safety in numbers" as inspiration, we decided to go for it, and we were rewarded halfway up with an out-of-this-world view of the steaming crater...it was simply amazing.

I always claim to be "naturally fit" having played a lot of sport as a youngster, a statement that is probably a load of codswallop, but despite my unhealthy diet, I`m always able to cope with hikes with relative ease...of course, being surrounded by mindboggling scenery helps you to forget about the aches and pains! Certainly the next leg of the hike was the most scenic as we walked along a ridge, gradually getting closer to the crater, and at this point able to see it in its entirety. We stopped for one of the most scenic picnics ever in the middle of the ridge, on what was such a calm day...there was barely any wind at all at the top.

We continued onto another peak that brought more 360 degree views, and we noticed how a lot of the plantation was covered in ice...it was 4 degrees celcius at this point, but it would obviously be a lot colder in the night. It didn`t actually feel that cold though, even when we stopped for a drink and to decide on a route back down to the start. In the end, we opted to go back the same way we`d came because the view of the crater was so great, and the alternative route was less scenic, with a disused cable car route being the major sight (it was destroyed by an eruption in 1979).

I lost count of the number of times that Sven slipped on the way down, thanks to his trainers that weren`t best suited to the volcanic terrain, but there were no emergencies and we got back to the visitor centre in quick time. It was lovely to go inside for a drink and something to eat, and I got talking to an Australian guy as we warmed up in front of the fire. He`d been teaching here for 11 months and was very upbeat on my chances of finding work, and offered some good advice that definitely provided food for thought...

In the meantime, Sven and I rebuffed the idea of getting the bus back to town, instead choosing to walk along a deserted track that ended up taking two hours. We passed some nice scenery and got a couple of good shots of another extinct volcano, but the highlight was when we realised that we were actually in the middle of one gigantic crater! Miles into the distance were mountains that circled the whole area, and by referring to the Lonely Planet, we found out that the crater has a circumference of 128km no less! In fact it`s the largest active caldera in the world, and I`m glad I wasn`t around when it was created 100,000 years ago! The size is mindboggling, with many towns, villages and train lines all contained within it, and there we were with a perfect view of it all as we descended into town...

We went to the restaurant (singular) after arriving back, and that first beer tasted sooo good! I even went and bought a 4 pack on the way back to the hostel as a reward for such a productive day, and things got even better when I found out that the hostel had its very own onsen-style hot bath! Needless to say, I wasted little time in stripping naked, showering off, and having a long old soak in the steaming water...what a way to wind down after a long walk!

When I woke up the next morning, I was quietly pleased to see it absolutely pouring down outside...the early morning start on Tuesday had paid dividends! In fact, it didn`t stop raining all day, even turning to snow for a few hours...but I can honestly say, I didn`t care one little bit!

I quite happily stayed in bed until after 10am, before venturing into town in the afternoon when an old Japanese lady at the hostel offered me a lift. She took me to the supermarket to stock up on Cup Noodles, before dropping me off at the visitor centre where I planned the next part of my trip on the internet, and listened to the new Arctic Monkeys album.

After doing lots of touristy things over the last couple of weeks, it had been great just lazing around for a change, and I topped it off with an unbelievable soak in the hot bath in the evening...pure heaven! A perfect way to end my stay in Aso...or so I thought...

Inexplicably, things somehow managed to get even better the next morning, prompting me to delay my long train journey south to Kagoshima by a few hours. The plan was to get an early start and take the 8.46am train, so I checked out of the hostel and began walking on what was a glorious day...but I could scarcely believe my eyes when I glanced back and saw the mountains and volcanoes completely covered in snow! What a stunning sight, and a surprising one considering it was the middle of Spring and Kyushu is known for its milder climate...

Once at the train station, I quickly stored my main backpack in a locker and boarded the 9am bus upto the crater area, along with a number of locals who seemed equally as excited by this unexpected treat. I was impressed that the roads had been cleared so quickly, allowing the bus to slowly weave its way to the top without any problem at all - back home, it`s a national state of emergency when a couple of inches fall, but here it was business as usual after about 9 inches overnight!

Climbing the peaks would have been totally out of the question with all the snow, so I really had timed my trip to perfection - a day hiking above the crater, a day recharging the batteries, and a morning wandering around beneath the freshly covered peaks! We weren`t allowed up to the crater on this occasion because it was misbehaving, not that I cared as I was more than happy just trampling through the snow on my lonesome, away from the crowds and taking many photographs.

What a few days it had turned out to be...
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